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Addressing personnel concerns about school violence through education, assessment and strategic planning.

Violence in the United States has been increasing among children and adolescents at alarming rates and is now considered a significant public health concern (Thornton, Craft, Dahlberg, Lynch, & Baer, 2000). In a typical city, 30 to 50 cases of school violence are reported daily, with one half of these cases involving guns (Shafii and Shafii, 2001). The probability that a student will die as a result of violence in an American high school is five times higher than the likelihood in other developed countries (Shafii and Shafii, 2001). As a result, many school leaders have rated safety as a top priority.

Typically, school security and safety have been addressed through changes in equipment or personnel, such as installation of metal detectors or hiring of security officers. Yet recent safety initiatives in schools have been more broadly defined to include prevention and intervention programs that target students, schools and communities (Peterson & Skiba, 2000). Examples of these programs are: conflict resolution and peer mediation programs (Aber, Jones, Brown, Chaudry, & Samples, 1998; Reece, Peterson, & Skiba, 2000); development of mechanisms for reporting security concerns and explicit policies pertaining to aggressive or violent behaviors (Gable & Van Acker, 2000; Trump, 1998); education and training of students, staff and teachers on the early and imminent warning signs of violence (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998); teaching of life skills and pro-social behaviors (Van Acker & Talbott, 1999); increasing cultural sensitivity and respect for diversity (Laurel & Duhaney, 2000); creation and reinforcement of linkages to outside services (Sheras, Cornell, & Bostain, 1996); and preparation for a crisis and its aftermath (Dwyer, Osher, & Hoffman, 2000). Based on the work by Conrad and colleagues (1994), the model depicted in Figure 1 provides a conceptualization of school violence within an ecological health framework. This model shows that school violence is influenced by student, school and community factors that can be modified by prevention and intervention activities. For example, student risk factors may be diminished by enhancing problem solving and anger management skills, while school risk factors may be changed by increasing the physical safety of the building.

Although multiple programs have demonstrated efficacy in reducing violence, there are no studies demonstrating the extent to which school personnel perceive a need for such programs or are adopting them in any systematic manner. Furthermore, it is suggested that many schools may face a number of barriers that prevent implementation of such programs, such as limited resources and lack of an infrastructure for new program development (Trump, 1998). Many school officials express concern about available equipment and personnel to teach basic academic courses, let alone expanded programs addressing violence and other psychosocial issues. Moreover, the success of many of these programs depends not only on the commitment of the entire school but community support as well (Aber, Brown, Chaudry, Jones, & Sample, 1996; Orpinas, Kelder, Murray, Fourney, Confroy, & McReynolds, 1996; Wiist, Jackson, & Jackson, 1996).

Because of the apparent gap between the need for and dissemination of effective programs, this study was designed to accomplish three aims: 1) to educate school personnel about the effects of violence and evidence-based programs for school safety; 2) to assess perceptions of school personnel about school safety, barriers to violence prevention and systemic response to crisis; and 3) to develop a model for strategic planning that can be disseminated into the community. To address these aims, local mental health experts presented a one-day summer workshop on violence and post-traumatic stress disorder to K-12 school personnel. To address the first aim, presenters discussed causes of violence, attributes of effective prevention and intervention programs to reduce violence, and characteristics of safe schools that have been identified in the published literature on school violence in the past decade. Participants considering the implementation of programs and strategies to prevent youth violence were encouraged to adopt programs that 1) reduced the risk of vulnerable youth, 2) improved their overall school's efficacy in developing the academic, social and moral character of the students, and 3) encouraged linkages with the community. To address the second aim, participants completed a survey in which they rated their schools on each of the characteristics of safe schools. Results of the survey were used as the framework for focus groups in which participants discussed their primary concerns about school safety, potential interventions to address their top priorities, and perceived barriers and facilitators to implementation of such interventions. To address the third aim, participants were guided through a process of strategic planning to develop action plans that could be immediately implemented upon returning to their respective schools. To evaluate the impact of this intervention, participants completed surveys in which they rated their knowledge and understanding of violence and post-traumatic stress disorder in children and adolescents. In addition, they also completed baseline surveys in which they rated their school's safety and were interviewed nine months following the work, shop about similar issues. They were also asked whether new programs aimed toward violence prevention had been implemented in their schools during the intervening academic year.


Participants. Participants were 32 school personnel from 23 middle and high schools throughout a primarily rural southern state who attended a one-day summer educational workshop on violence and posttraumatic stress disorder. Represented were 22 teachers, 4 nurses, and 6 other employees. Of the 32 participants, 30 were female. Twenty-three were Caucasian, seven were African American, and two were Hispanic.

Measures. Based on a thorough review of the theoretical and empirical literature on school violence, six basic characteristics of safe schools were identified. These include the following: 1) teaching life skills, 2) fostering openness and respect, 3) establishing linkages to outside systems, 4) maintaining a safe physical environment, 5) recognizing early signs of violence, and 6) preparing for crisis.

Based on these six characteristics, a survey was designed for participants to complete following the educational component of the intervention. Participants were asked to rate their schools on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = very poor; 2 = poor; 3 = fair; 4 = very good; 5 = excellent) on each of the six dimensions. A similar survey was developed for the nine-month follow-up evaluation. Additionally, participants were asked to complete a survey at the conclusion of the day-long session that rated the program on its content and relevance to their teaching environment. This post-course survey contained eight questions that addressed whether teachers would use the materials in the classroom and share the knowledge with others (students and teachers). They were also asked to rate the organization and presentation on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = agree/disagree, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree) with 5 being the highest score on each of the content/relevance areas.

Procedure. A two-hour didactic session on violence, reviewing current literature and case histories, was presented by a team of local mental health researchers and clinicians as part of a larger summer science education program partnering K- 12 teachers and school personnel with university faculty. Topics included prevalence, theories, etiology and risk factors for violence, and prevention and intervention models.

The program also addressed the characteristics of safe schools and provided examples of prevention and intervention programs known to be effective in reducing violence and increasing school safety. Following the lecture, the participants were asked to rate their individual schools on each of the following six characteristics.

* Teaching Life Skills. Life skills training included conflict resolution, peer mediation, problem solving, development of empathy and anger management. Examples of such programs include the Peer Mediation in Schools Program from the New Mexico Center for Dispute Resolution (Copeland & Gerfield, 1989a, 1989b); the Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) program from Boulder, Colorado (Greenberg, Kusche, Cook, & Quamma, 1995; Greenberg & Kusche, 1998); and the Positive Adolescent Choices Training (PACT), implemented in Dayton, Ohio (Yung & Hammond, 1995, 1998).

* Fostering Openness and Respect. This category included programs that fostered an open atmosphere where students, staff, teachers and parents were encouraged to openly communicate and discuss issues pertaining to safety, cultural sensitivity, and respect for differences. The concept of creating a healthy "climate" in the school was stressed (Peterson & Skiba, 2000). An example of this is the "Teaching Students To Be Peacemakers" Program (Johnson & Johnson, 1995) developed at the University of Minnesota.

* Establishing Linkages to Outside Systems. This category addressed the importance of connections to external systems, including medical and behavioral healthcare, juvenile justice, child welfare, community churches or other social or cultural organizations. The concept of sharing responsibility for violence prevention was discussed and the importance of the interface between the school and the child's home and community (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998). Examples of successful community linkages include the Supporting Adolescents with Guidance and Employment program in North Carolina (Ringwalt, Graham, Paschall, Flewelling, & Browne, 1996) and the Baltimore Mentoring Partnership (Freedman, 1993). The importance of maintaining a clear path for referrals and mechanisms for feedback from these outside systems was also emphasized.

* Maintaining a Safe Physical Environment. A number of factors contributing to safe physical environments were stressed, including class size, hallway monitoring, sign-in sheets for visitors, having adults visible throughout the school, and staggered lunch and dismissal times (Haller, 1992; Stephens, 1994; Nelson, 1996; Steward & Knapp, 1997; Cornell, 1998). The negative effects of having too much security, i.e., cameras and locker and weapon checks, were also emphasized (Peterson & Skiba, 2000).

* Recognition of Early and Imminent Warning Signs of Violence. This category included education on early and imminent warning signs, general guidelines on how to assess and respond to signs when they occur, and school policies regarding aggressive behaviors (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998).

* Preparation for Crisis. This category covered procedures for responding to a crisis and addressing concerns in the aftermath. One component that should be included is a "School Safety Talk Force" (SSTF; Lyndal, Bullock, Fitzsimons, & Gable, 1996) to develop policies and procedures and train others in crisis response. In responding to the aftermath of a crisis, participants were also briefed on how to evaluate whether anyone in their school had been trained in crisis debriefing, procedures on helping victims and family members to re-enter the school environment, and interacting with media (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998).

Participants were divided into three one-hour focus groups following the didactic session. A trained facilitator and recorder were assigned to each one-hour session. Participants were introduced and briefed on the purpose of the focus group. Through consensus method, participants identified the school characteristic most in need of intervention and discussed this characteristic in reference to 1) possible interventions that would improve their schools' safety, 2) potential barriers to implementing the interventions, and 3) possible facilitators to overcome these difficulties. Participants also identified a potential list of school personnel or community leaders who could assist in implementing an intervention plan, and developed an action plan for immediate implementation upon returning to school at the end of the summer. At the end of the day-long workshop, participants completed the post-course survey.

Nine months following the workshop, participants were contacted by telephone by a trained research assistant and asked whether any programs to improve safety or prevent violence had been initiated at their school in the intervening nine months. Respondents were asked to categorize the programs (e.g., crisis intervention, community linkages, life skills, etc.) and to re-evaluate their schools on the six dimensions previously described.


Post-Course Survey. The post-course survey in Table 1 shows that participant ratings on the content and relevance of the program to their teaching environment ranged from a mean of 4.30 (increased motivation to teach this area of health science) to a mean of 4.86 (program well taught/presented). The program's overall rating was 4.45.

Safe School Survey. Results from the baseline and nine month follow-up surveys are presented in Table 2. At baseline, the means across items ranged from 2.63 (teaching life skills) to 3.27 (fostering openness and respect). Categories with the poorest ratings (ratings of very poor or poor by almost one third of participants) were teaching life skills and preparing for a crisis. Categories with the highest ratings (ratings of very good by more than a third of participants) were fostering openness and respect and creating linkages in the community. No participants rated their schools as excellent in any category.

Focus Group. Interestingly, each group selected a different school characteristic to focus on in the discussion and strategic planning: 1) teaching life skills, 2) crisis response, and 3) early warning signs. In discussing interventions for teaching life skills the first group identified three programs for potential implementation in their schools--peer mediation, character building and conflict resolution. For older students, participants suggested a peer mediation program that involved selection and training of pairs of mediators by teachers to assist when conflicts arose among other students. Participants estimated that the training would require one week with remedial instruction as necessary. To assist in character building for younger children, participants agreed that schools should identify one characteristic per day (e.g., honesty or trustworthiness) for discussion and modeling by peers and teachers. Participants also agreed that conflict resolution could be best addressed through establishment of a teen court involving the community's prosecuting attorney's office. The group participants were also interested in developing programs to enhance the cultural sensitivity of students by exposing them to a variety of cultural backgrounds. Resources for this type of program would include visits to local museums, book readings and internet searches. Team members identified to assist in the implementation of the character-building programs were the school administrator and/or principal, counselor, school nurse, teachers, and parents. First steps in the group's action plan were volunteering to assist in a school in-service, using information obtained in the summer workshop they had just completed.

Members of the second focus group agreed that their respective schools were lacking in crisis response planning and management. Although participants agreed that most schools in urban areas have a comprehensive, written crisis plan, smaller schools frequently have no plan or are not prepared to implement one due to minimal training. Proposed interventions included development of a written plan; implementation of training and drills; and open communication with school personnel, students and parents about the existence and content of such plans. Specific items to include in a written plan were suggested by group members (e.g., designated post-crisis areas and contact persons for students, parents, teachers, media; crisis kits including blankets, emergency supplies, etc.; procedures for evacuating students and securing the school facilities; debriefing procedures; and ongoing evaluation of procedures and policies). School personnel were particularly concerned about establishing a wellness program for teachers, counselors and nurses to cope with chronic school safety problems (e.g., theft or student aggression) as well as acute incidents (e.g., suicide or other extreme acts of violence). Important members of the intervention team for this group were police, fire fighters and other emergency personnel. First steps identified by the group in an action plan were to determine whether the school had an updated crisis plan and distribute it to school personnel or develop a crisis plan based on input from teachers and community leaders and implement training sessions with school personnel.

Members of the third group agreed that identification of early warning signs was their primary concern. They suggested that it was important to inform everyone in the school, including students, about early warning signs of violence, important developmental and social issues contributing to at-risk behaviors, personal responsibility for perpetuating problem behaviors, and appropriate responses, including non-punitive statements and disciplinary actions. The members also recommended that multiple channels of communication be established that allow for the reporting of concerns while preserving anonymity. Members of the action team included the principal, counselor, secretary, nurse, community leaders, parents, and students. Members agreed that the first steps in an action plan would include contact with the principal and development of a workshop and refresher course for school personnel.

Perceived barriers and facilitators to implementation were similar across the three groups. Barriers included lack of communication between teachers and administrators; minimal financial resources; limited time; competing priorities between academics and other psychosocial issues; lack of parent involvement and participation; liability concerns; and school personnel apathy or burn-out. Many of the participants also expressed concern that even with highly publicized school incidents of violence in recent years, most teachers and parents deny or minimize the problem. Facilitating factors included information provided in forums such as the summer workshop, resource materials available through local agencies (e.g., the Southern Poverty Law Center) and federally funded pilot programs (e.g., Safe Schools Initiative by SAMHSA), and partnerships among mental health agencies, mentors, faith communities and schools.

Follow-up Survey. At follow-up, 61% of the respondents indicated that their school had initiated at least one program to improve school safety and prevent violence. The programs included crisis intervention (57%), community linkages (48%), life skills (43%), fostering openness and respect (61%), creating safe physical environments (61%), education on early warning signs (52%), and other activities (13%). Table 2 also indicates an improvement in ratings on each dimension from baseline to follow-up.


School personnel attending this workshop reported improvements in their general knowledge about violence in schools, the psychological and physical impact of violence and specific programs to improve school safety. Generally, the program was well received and rated as good or excellent by the majority of participants.

At the time of the program, school personnel rated their school as doing a fair or good job of addressing safety concerns through various interventions. Particularly noteworthy were the schools' ability to foster an atmosphere of openness and respect and to create linkages with community resources that would contribute to feelings of safety among personnel and students. The findings also suggest that schools are responding to the threat of violence by securing the physical perimeters of the school and engaging in other structural changes that are known to deter violence.

One-fifth to one-third of school personnel identified specific areas in which their school performed poorly or very poorly. Those areas rated poorest were selected by the focus groups as topics of discussion. Two of these areas--teaching life skills and early warning signs--target the prevention of violence. Education of teachers and students and improvement in communications among teachers, students and parents were identified as critical components of both programs. Preparation for a crisis--the third area targeted by participants for development--represents an intervention program to be initiated once violence has occurred. School personnel were concerned that they were unprepared for a crisis, were not well informed about their school's crisis plan, and did not have access to resources that would assist them in a crisis (e.g., linkages with outside agencies or emergency supplies in case there were injuries). The group members also expressed a need for debriefing training so that they were better equipped to respond to student's psychological needs following a crisis.

Although teachers and/or parents have the most extensive information about the behavioral problems of children and adolescents (Verhulst, Koot, & Van Der Ende. 1994; Gresham. 1984), they are often reluctant to consider that a child's academic or social difficulties may be related to poor emotional health (Lamarine. 1995). Yet school personnel are in a favorable position to identify significant developmental and behavioral problems (Kazdin, 1990; Resnick, Falsetti, Kilpatick, Freedy, 1996) and many times can provide the initial link to treatment (Klein, McNulty, & Flatau. 1998; Adelman & Taylor. 1999). By systematically providing more education to school personnel on how to identify a child at risk for violence and intervene efficiently and appropriately, administrators would be providing a much-needed service for the nation's children, their families and communities at large.

Interestingly, the participants in each focus group were unified in identification of perceived barriers and facilitators to violence prevention and intervention in the schools. Although considerable funding is currently available for development of such programs, few studies address the most effective mechanisms for dissemination across different school systems with diverse student and teacher populations. As with mental health care, limited resources often restrict the adoption of "best practices" into routine settings (Thornton, Craft, Dahlberg, Lynch, & Baer, 2000). Thus, it is important to study what school personnel consider are the difficulties they face in altering the prevalence and impact of violence. Moreover, participants were consistent in identifying student, school and community representatives as necessary to any prevention or intervention efforts. It has been proposed that educative ecology--the environment of education--should include collaborative efforts by families, schools, health agencies, and universities, as well as government and the media (Goodlad. 1997). Consequently, a natural strategy for improving child and adolescent mental health is through an enhanced cooperation between academic communities, mental health providers and professionals within the school settings.

At the nine-month follow-up, almost two-thirds (61%) of the participants indicated their school developed prevention or intervention programs similar to those discussed in the workshop. These were associated with improvements in overall ratings of school safety across the six domains. This suggests that the workshop may have served as a catalyst for action in participants' schools, increasing school personnel's awareness of safety concerns and providing options for new program implementation.

It is important to recognize that this study has several limitations. The surveys were conducted on a small number of school personnel attending a one-day workshop on violence and posttraumatic stress disorder. Because they may represent a very highly motivated group, their responses may not be representative of school personnel across the state or nationally. It is unknown whether their responses would be different from a broader sample of teachers, counselors and school nurses. Secondly, the surveys assessed the perceptions of school personnel, rather than directly evaluating what has been done to improve safety in each school. Direct observation, interviews with administrators, principals and other school representatives, or surveys that asked about specific events should be included in future evaluations. For example, assessing whether a crisis intervention plan was developed or whether training sessions on violence were offered during the subsequent school year would more accurately capture the extent to which the program impacted prevention and intervention activities. Finally, because a comparison sample of non-participating schools was not included in the study, it is not possible to determine whether the workshop directly influenced the initiation of new programming or whether other variables (e.g., community pressure or changes in school district policies) affected the outcome.

Despite these limitations, the study provides a model for education, assessment and strategic planning that school personnel can use to improve various aspects of school safety. Future work should include objective follow-up measures (e.g., actual decreases in school fights) of school personnel to evaluate the overall effectiveness of this approach, particularly whether such efforts result in policy or programmatic changes. Specific factors that may hinder or facilitate change, such as size of the student body or student/teacher ratio, urban versus rural location of the school, and active involvement of parents in the school's activities, should also be considered in future studies.

Because one constant in the lives of most youth is school attendance, it is a natural setting in which teachers and school personnel have the opportunity to intervene when a child or adolescent exhibits potential signs of violence or appears to be at risk for other reasons. The challenge is to develop innovative programs that successfully bridge academic and scientific communities, mental health providers, school personnel and family to optimize the transfer of knowledge about psychosocial and behavioral problems, empowering those most likely to interact with students who may be the victims or perpetrators of violence.
Table 1
Post-course survey

Item                            Mean (SD)  Disagree  Disagree

Learned something new           4.50(.51)     0         0

Increased teaching motivation   4.30(.61)     0         0

Increased desire to use new
teaching technologies and/or
techniques                      3.96(.65)     0        3.7

Planned to use information
and materials in future         4.39(.50)     0         0

Program was well organized      4.39(.50)     0         0

Program was well taught         4.86(.36)     0         0

Satisfied with level of
interaction and involvement     4.64(.56)     0         0

Exceed expectations             4.52(.64)     0         0

Overall                         4.45(.32)

                                 Agree/              Strongly
Item                            Disagree    Agree     Agree

Learned something new               0        50.0      50.0

Increased teaching motivation      7.4       55.6      37.0

Increased desire to use new
teaching technologies and/or
techniques                        11.1       70.4      14.8

Planned to use information
and materials in future             0        60.7      39.3

Program was well organized          0        60.7      39.3

Program was well taught             0        14.3      85.7

Satisfied with level of
interaction and involvement        3.6       28.6      67.9

Exceed expectations                7.4       33.3      59.3

Table 2
School Personal Rankings on Safe School Characteristics


Characteristics       Mean (SD)    Very Poor      Poor

Life Skills          2.63 (.76)   3 (9.7%)     7 (22.6%)

Openness             3.27 (.83)   1 (3.2%)     4 (12.9%)

Linkages             3.17 (.76)   0 (0%)       6 (19.4%)

Safe Environment     3.23 (.68)   1 (3.2%)     1 (3.2%)

Warning Signs        2.83 (.66)   1 (3.2%)     6 (19.4%)

Crisis Intervention  2.87 (.97)   3 (9.7%)     7 (22.6%)


Characteristics       Mean (SD)    Very Poor      Poor

Life Skills          3.43 (1.08)  0 (0%)       5 (21.74%)

Openness             3.35 (.88)   0 (0%)       4 (17.39%)

Linkages             3.52 (1.04)  0 (0%)       5 (21.74%)

Safe Environment     3.65 (.83)   0 (0%)       3 (13.04%)

Warning Signs        3.09 (1.04)  1 (4.35%)    6 (26.09%)

Crisis Intervention  3.61 (2.87)  0 (0%)       2 (8.70%)


Characteristics         Fair         Good      Excellent

Life Skills          18 (58.1%)    2 (6.5%)    0 (0%)

Openness             11 (35.5%)   14 (45.2%)   0 (0%)

Linkages             12 (38.7%)   11 (35.5%)   0 (0%)

Safe Environment     18 (58.1%)   10 (32.3%)   0 (0%)

Warning Signs        19 (61.3%)    3 (9.7%)    0 (0%)

Crisis Intervention  11 (35.5%)    9 (29.0%)   0 (0%)


Characteristics         Fair         Good      Excellent

Life Skills          8 (34.78%)    5 (21.74%)  5 (21.74%)

Openness             9 (39.13%)    8 (34.78%)  2 (8.70%)

Linkages             5 (21.74%)    9 (39.13%)  4 (17.39%)

Safe Environment     4 (17.39%)   14 (60.87%)  2 (8.70%)

Warning Signs        8 (34.78%)    6 (26.09%)  2 (8.70%)

Crisis Intervention  7 (30.43%)   12 (52.17%)  2 (8.70%)


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(1) Centers for Mental Healthcare Research, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, 5800 West Markham Street, Suite 605, Little Rock, AR, 72204

(2) Department of Social Work, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2801 South University, Little Rock, AR, 72204
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Author:Kramer, Teresa L.; Jones, Kim A.; Kirchner, JoAnn; Miller, Terri L.; Wilson, Crystal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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